Friday, August 31, 2007

NFL Preview: NFC North

Chicago Bears: The Bears surprised many by making it all the way to the Super Bowl last year, despite dealing with inconsistent play from Rex Grossman. As bad as he could be, Grossman was better than the Kyle Orton experience of 2005, but he still was very turnover prone and at times put more pressure on the Bears defense to win games for them. Fortunately, the defense was very capable of winning games by itself, and it didn't hurt that the Bears played in the weak NFC North.

While Grossman gave the Bears some big plays, the offense was anchored by the running game. Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson provided an excellent one-two punch; Jones with his quickness and Benson with his pure power. Devin Hester also provided a spark as a kick and punt returner, so much so that Chicago will look to get him into the offense a bit this year. Of course the defense, led by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, was the crux of the team and they will be again this year.

The Bears come back with a mostly impact defense, though Briggs considered holding out for a long time and now he could face some legal trouble after crashing and abandoning his Ferrari recently. The most notable change is the departure of Jones, who is now a Jet. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Benson, who is now the only viable running back. He's had injury problems in the past and it wouldn't be surprising if they cropped up again since he relies on power and is going to take a lot of hard hits. If the Bears want to get back to the Super Bowl, Benson will have to stay healthy and be effective and Grossman will have to show at least a little improvement. If these things don't happen, the defense can probably get them the division title, but they will likely fall short in the playoffs.

Minnesota Vikings: Brad Childress did a decent job in his first season as head coach with a team that was not particularly talented. The offense clearly needed work, though Chester Taylor had some nice games. Brad Johnson struggled and proved that he is no longer a starting quarterback. The defense was phenomenal against the run, but fared poorly against the pass.

The offense should be improved this year thanks to the drafting of Adrian Peterson. Peterson looks to have a bright NFL future and the Vikings were fortunate that he fell into their laps. He and Taylor should give the Vikings a dangerous rushing tandem, but there are still major questions about their quarterback situation. (Many thought they should have drafted Brady Quinn instead of Peterson.) As of now, the team will be starting Tavaris Jackson, who has only played in 4 games in his career and has a 62.5 QB rating. The spot is Jackson's to lose, as there is no young quarterback waiting to take over, though the team did recently acquire Kelly Holcomb, who could see some playing time if Jackson struggles.

Minnesota will have to get some improvement from their pass defense, but with their strong rush defense and the improved running game, they could win some games simply by dominating time of the possession. That might be enough for them to finish second in this division, but if they can improve the pass defense and can get solid play out of Jackson, they might just give the Bears a run.

Detroit Lions: Detroit had a terrible season, finishing at 3-13. Jon Kitna did a decent job and Kevin Jones had a few good games, but it was not enough. The Lions defense couldn't get the job done and the running game was often ineffective. On talent, the Lions were far better than their record, but the chemistry didn't seem to be there.

In the off-season, the Lions made some significant improvements. They spent the second overall pick in the draft on Calvin Johnson and then took Drew Stanton in the second round. While Detroit drew some criticism for their frequent drafting of wide receivers in the first round, all of whom have been busts except for Roy Williams, it's hard to criticize this pick because of Johnson's talent. Even the Raiders, who desperately needed quarterback help, had to seriously consider Johnson with the first overall pick. It's hard to remember the last time a wide receiver had this much hype coming out of college. Johnson probably won't have a huge impact this year, simply because he will have to learn the playbook and historically wide receivers take a year or two to blossom, but he should still make some big plays nonetheless.

The other big additions were adding Tatum Bell and T.J. Duckett, especially now that Jones is hurt and will miss a good portion of the season. Bell relies on quickness and Duckett is a power back, so the two should complement each other extremely well. On defense, the loss of Dre' Bly will hurt, but they still have the talent to be decent. It's hard to see the Lions finishing at .500, or winning the division, as Kitna suggested, but they should show some improvement and might even make a run at second place.

Green Bay Packers: While many have called for Brett Favre to retire in the last few years, he surprised many by helping the team to a 8-8 record. Favre was far from his best, posting a 72.7 QB rating, but the team still played reasonably well. A.J. Hawk had a fine rookie season and improved the defense and Ahman Green stayed fairly healthy and played well.

Unfortunately for the Packers, Green left for Houston via free agency and the running game will now rely primarily on rookie Brandon Jackson. He will not have an easy time of it, playing behind a mediocre offensive line. The defense should, again, be a strength with Hawk, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamala, Al Harris, and rookie Justin Harrell, but it isn't good enough to win games by itself.

Unless Favre bounces back and has a very strong season or Jackson has an outstanding rookie year, it's hard to see the Packers doing much better than third. That said, this is a very weak division and it is very hard to predict. If everything goes right in Green Bay and some things go wrong with the rest of the division, it's not inconceivable for the Packers to come out on top.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

NFL Preview: NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles: Ten games into the 2006 season, the Eagles looked to be repeating their disappointing 2005 campaign. When the Eagles lost their Week 11 match-up to the Titans, in which McNabb suffered a season-ending injury, the team dropped to 5-5. Jeff Garcia turned everything around. After dropping his first start to Indianapolis, he led the Eagles to five straight wins, netting them the NFC East crown. The Eagles beat the Giants in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Saints.

Not only did last season lead the Eagles to believe they can win without McNabb, but it brought up serious questions about his future with the team. As a result, the Eagles selected Kevin Kolb in the second round of the draft. Kolb shouldn't see much playing time this season, with McNabb starting and A.J. Feeley as the primary backup, but it sent a message that the Eagles are running out of patience with McNabb. If the Eagles are going to have a great season, it won't be about McNabb. The Eagles can score, we know that already. When healthy, McNabb is an MVP candidate, but there is good talent around him. Brian Westbrook is one of the better running backs in the league, the offensive line is excellent, and the receiving corps is solid. Should McNabb go down again, Feeley knows the offense and should be capable of running the team.

The real issue will be how the defense performs. It struggled last year, particularly against the run. The defensive line was undersized, partly due to the injury to Jevon Kearse, and the linebackers were ineffective. Jeremiah Trotter, normally a great run-stopper, clearly lost a step and was released as a result. The linebacker positions will now be anchored down by newly acquired Takeo Spikes, Omar Gaither, and either Chris Gocong or Stewart Bradley. It's an inexperienced group, with the exception of Spikes, but there is a lot riding on them.

Dallas Cowboys: Last season turned out to be the last straw for Drew Bledsoe in Dallas. He did not fare particularly well, posting a 3-2 record before he was benched in favor of Tony Romo. Romo started out on a tear, winning 5 of his first 6, but sputtered down the stretch, losing 3 of 4, costing the Cowboys the division. We all know what happened in the first round of the playoffs against the Seahawks. Suffice it to say that Romo won't be holding for kicks again this year.

While Romo will be returning as the starting quarterback, 2006 did spell the end of Bill Parcells, who was replaced by Wade Phillips. With a 48-39 career head coaching record, Phillips cannot compare with Parcells' resume, nor does he have an impressive playoff record (0-3). He was brought in mainly because the Cowboys were frustrated with their defense, which was very talented but could not produce. The defense should improve, with young players such as Marcus Spears and DeMarcus Ware likely to improve and the team will also benefit from first-round pick Anthony Spencer, a speedy defensive end who should be a perfect fit in the Cowboys 3-4 defense.

The defense play a large role in the team's success, but all eyes will be on Romo. Can he recover from blowing his first playoff game? Also, which Romo will show up? The one who won five of his first six games, or the one who melted down in the end of the regular season and playoffs? If Romo plays well and the defense improves, the Cowboys could be among the best in the NFC, but it may not be enough to beat the Eagles.

New York Giants: The NFC East looked to belong to the Giants, who got off to a 6-2 start. Eli Manning was playing as well as he ever had and Tiki Barber was having a great year. Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and Jeremy Shockey were helping Manning out, giving him a wide variety of options. Unfortunately for Giants fans, this success could not be maintained. The Giants lost six of their last eight and eked out a playoff spot, only to lose to the Eagles in the first round.

It couldn't have helped that Barber announced his retirement mid-way through the season, and he followed through at the end, joining NBC as an analyst. He's already made a splash in that role by criticizing Manning's leadership ability. While he may not be missed in the Giants locker room, in light of recent events, he will be sorely missed on the field. Brandon Jacobs now becomes the primary running back, with newly acquired Reuben Droughns as the backup.

While Jacobs has been effective as a third-down back, who could pound the ball for a few tough yards, he may not be ready to be an every-down back. Yes, he'll have Droughns to help him, but Droughns, a converted fullback, is a very similar runner. Both are pure power runners, though Jacobs has a little quickness. This should make life easier for the Giants' opposition, who probably won't have to worry about the outside run. It will take a great season from Jacobs for this team to be successful.

Washington Redskins: Once again Daniel Snyder's high-priced Redskins team fell on their faces, posting a 5-11 record. Mark Brunell was ousted as the starting quarterback, in favor of Jason Campbell, who was unable to improve the team much, though he did show some promise. Clinton Portis suffered several injuries and Ladell Betts got a lot of touches as a result. Betts was very effective and will see a lot of playing time this year, whether or not Portis is healthy. The wide receivers also looked very good, with Santana Moss leading the way.

The defense was not particularly effective and clearly showed signs of aging. That won't be any different this year, as the biggest addition was that of London Fletcher. One thing they do have going for them is two young, talented safeties in Sean Taylor and rookie Laron Landry. Taylor can be overaggressive at times, but he is one of the hardest hitters in the league, and Landry shows a great deal of promise.

It's hard to know what to expect from that defense, which has been very inconsistent the last few years, but the offense will be crucial. If the Redskins want to climb out of the NFC East cellar, they will need solid performances from Portis and Campbell. With Portis and Betts, the 'Skins may be able to get by with a strong rushing attack, but even so it will be very hard for them to keep up with the rest of the division.

Monday, August 27, 2007

NFL Preview: AFC West

San Diego Chargers: The Chargers followed an outstanding regular season with an early playoff exit, which ultimately spelled the end for Marty Schottenheimer. Until the post-season, everything could not have gone much better in San Diego. LaDainian Tomlinson had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history, and he, Antonio Gates, and Philip Rivers combined to give San Diego the best offense in the league. The defense also played extremely well, highlighted by Shawne Merriman, who might have been Defensive Player of the Year had he not been suspended briefly for steroid use. Despite all this success, the Chargers were defeated by the Patriots in their first playoff game.

While the loss to New England led many to believe that there would be some major changes, the only significant move was the replacement of Schottenheimer with Norv Turner. Turner was the head coach of the Raiders in 2004 and 2005, so he is at least familiar with the division. Many believed Schottenheimer's conservative coaching style really hurt the team in the playoffs, so this could have a big impact. The team may miss Wade Phillips, who left for the Dallas head coaching job, but the defensive staff is very experienced, led by Ted Cottrell and including former Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera as the linebackers coach.

There's not much more to say about the Chargers. They are stacked on offense and defense. It would take an injury to Tomlinson to remove them from the NFL's elite, and even then they have enough weapons that they could be dangerous.

Denver Broncos: Denver got off to a great start last year, but sputtered down the stretch as the defense malfunctioned and the offense continued to struggle. After starting out 7-2, they ended the season by losing 5 of 7. They finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Many attributed Denver's poor play to the inconsistency of Jake Plummer, who was replaced by Jay Cutler. Cutler did not do much better, posting a 2-3 record in the games he started. The struggles had more to do with the defense than the offense. The defense was lights-out early on, but eventually came down to Earth.

In the off-season, Plummer's time in Denver officially ended, as he was traded to Tampa before retiring. This left the team to Cutler, who will be counted on to put up big numbers this year. Tatum Bell was also shipped out to Detroit in exchange for Dre' Bly. To make up for the loss of Bell, Travis Henry was added. Denver also signed Brandon Stokley and Daniel Graham. These changes should improve the offense substantially, and Bly should be able to make QBs pay for trying to completely avoid Champ Bailey. The Broncos have the talent to be a very dangerous team, but much will depend on how well Cutler performs.

Kansas City Chiefs: Many expected the Chiefs to upset Indianapolis in the playoffs last year, thinking that Larry Johnson would be able to plow his way through the Colts' suspect run-defense. The Colts countered Johnson by stacking the line, which should have opened up the passing game. Unfortunately, Trent Green was in the midst of a very poor season and was unable to get the job done.

That turned out to be Green's final game in Kansas City, as he was traded to the Dolphins in the off-season. Damon Huard will take over at quarterback, after putting up solid numbers when Green was injured last year.

Johnson had a long hold-out, but finally worked out a contract and should be ready for the start of the season. Also returning is Priest Holmes, who could see significant time spelling Johnson. An effective Holmes could be very important to the team's success. Johnson was the sole running option last season and one has to wonder how much his body can take.

Oakland Raiders: With Randy Moss, Aaron Brooks, and LaMont Jordan in the fold, the Raiders were supposed to have a very potent offense, but the team struggled mightily and finished with the worst record in the league. Despite all the talent at the skill positions, the offensive line couldn't open holes for Jordan or give Brooks enough time to find Moss and the other receivers. Brooks ended up sitting after only a few games, replaced by Andrew Walter, who was equally ineffective.

The Raiders had a difficult choice regarding who to take with the first overall pick in the draft, choosing JaMarcus Russell in the end. Russell looks like an outstanding prospect, but he may not be ready to start just yet, especially not with the Raiders' offensive line, which is still a weakness. The team also added Daunte Culpepper, who will likely start at the beginning of the season and will help tutor Russell, as well as Dominic Rhodes. Rhodes will split carries with Jordan and should improve the rushing attack.

That said, it's hard to see the offense improving much with the offensive line still a major weakness. The Raiders would do well to invest in their line, at least before Russell becomes the full-time starting quarterback. If not he could become the next David Carr. The one thing the Raiders do have going for them is the defense. It performed very well last year and may be even better this year with the additions of Donovan Darius, among others. If the offensive line can gel, the defense could do well enough to make the Raiders respectable, but odds are they're in for another terrible season.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

NFL Preview: AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars struggled somewhat last year, facing numerous injuries, and finished a disappointing 8-8. Byron Leftwich missed significant time, though David Garrard was unable to perform well enough to guarantee the starting job for this year. The Jaguars looked like a safe bet for the playoffs before they lost their final 3 games. The team was extremely erratic. They had some impressive wins, such as their 44-17 rout of the Colts, but also suffered surprising losses, including a 27-7 thrashing by the Texans.

While Leftwich and Garrard were unable to move the ball consistently through the air, the running game was superb, highlighted by the emergence of rooke Maurice Jones-Drew, who compiled three 100+ yard games despite backing up Fred Taylor. Jones-Drew terrorized Indianapolis in particular, as two of his 100 yard games came against the Colts. The running attack should be just as strong this year and it would not be a surprise if the Jaguars swept the Colts this season.

Much of Jacksonville's success will depend on their defense. Part of the reason for their lackluster season last year was a season-ending injury to Donovan Darius, who was cut in the off-season due to the team's selection of safety Reggie Nelson in the first round of the draft. The defense still played well, giving up only 5 more points than they did in their 2005 campaign, when they went 12-4. The key will be whether the Jaguars can find an answer at quarterback. Leftwich has a lot to prove and unless he has a stellar season, he will likely be allowed to leave as a free agent.

Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning finally proved his critics wrong, leading Indianapolis to a championship. Everything came together for the Colts. Manning his typical season, the running game was effective, despite Edgerin James' departure, anchored by Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai, and the defense was the best it's been in the last few years.

Unfortunately for Manning, the Colts will be hard-pressed to repeat because of a number of off-season losses. Rhodes, Mike Doss, Cato June, and Nick Harper all departed via free agency. A lot of pressure will be on Addai with Rhodes gone, but more significant are all the defensive losses. No major additions were made to bolster the defense and really the only significant move was the re-signing of Dwight Freeney. Freeney is a tremendous player, but he can't get it done by himself. The Colts showed themselves vulnerable to the run when the Jaguars, among others, ran all over them, and without two effective running backs, it will be much harder for the Colts to use their offense to control the clock.

While the rest of the AFC's elite looks better than they were last year, the Colts look substantially worse and unless some unheralded defensive players step up, another deep playoff run is unlikely.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans surprised a lot of people last year when they made a legitimate playoff push down the stretch, led by Vince Young. Young had an outstanding season and put on display the physical talent and leadership that made him so successful at the University of Texas.

While many are optimistic about the Titans' 2007 prospects, it is difficult to see them making the playoffs in this division. The Colts and Jaguars both have more talent, and even the Texans improved enough that they are capable of stealing a game from the Titans. What's more, Tennessee benefited from one of the easiest schedules in football and this year they will face one of the toughest.

Vince Young could carry them again this year, but one has to wonder about whether he can stay healthy. (No, not just because of the Madden cover) Scrambling quarterbacks often struggle to stay on the field. Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, and Steve McNair have all faced significant injuries in the past, so it would not be surprising to see Young go down. Should that happen, any playoff hopes the Titans may have would be sunk.

Houston Texans: Many eyebrows were raised when the Texans bypassed Reggie Bush and Vince Young to select Mario Williams with the first pick of the 2006 Draft. The argument was that the Texans already had capable players at running back and quarterback. That logic seems pretty flawed now. David Carr was shown the door after spending five seasons as a human tackling dummy, and Domanick Williams was cut after missing the entire season due to a pre-season injury. Mario Williams, meanwhile, had an unimpressive rookie season.

The biggest move the Texans made in the off-season was the addition of Matt Schaub, which spelled the end in Houston for Carr. Schaub, by all accounts, is a very capable quarterback who just had the misfortune of being stuck behind Michael Vick (though I bet Atlanta wishes they had held on a little longer now). Schaub may be an improvement, but the problem with Carr was never talent. The Texans have always had a weak offensive line and this issue was not addressed.

Schaub will be joined by former Packers running back Ahman Green. Green had a solid 1,000 yard season in Green Bay and was one of the lone bright spots. Still, at age 30 and without a strong offensive line, it's hard to imagine him being overly effective. Houston did manage to re-sign Andre Johnson, but the loss of Eric Moulds will mean that a lot of double teams will be coming Johnson's way. Houston should be in for another poor season. If they're bad enough, maybe they can redeem themselves in the draft.

Friday, August 24, 2007

NFL Preview: AFC North

Baltimore Ravens: Last year Steve McNair was able to lead the Ravens to an impressive 13-3 record in his first season in Baltimore, but the team would ultimately fall short, losing to Indianapolis in the divisional round of the playoffs. As good as McNair was, the offense was still sub-par, featuring a terribly inconsistent rushing attack. Jamal Lewis struggled in what turned out to be his final season as a Raven and Mike Anderson was not able to pick up the slack. The Ravens addressed that need in the off-season by cutting ties with Lewis and trading for Willis McGahee. McGahee had a bit of a down year in Buffalo, falling just short of 1000 yards in 14 games and recording only 6 TDs. Of course, this had a lot to do with the Bills poor quarterback play and a mediocre offensive line. McGahee should fare much better in Baltimore where he'll be playing behind a very strong offensive line and should get far more consistent play out of McNair than he did out of J.P. Losman.

The McGahee trade was by far the biggest move Baltimore made in the off-season and it should have huge ramifications, as it addresses their biggest weakness. This could be the best offense Baltimore has seen in a long time. The Ravens still have an outstanding defense, anchored by Ray Lewis, though they will be hurt by the loss of Adelius Thomas, whose versatility was extremely valuable. Even without him, Baltimore is loaded with talent and this will still be one of the top defensive units in the league.

The main question for this team will be the health of Steve McNair. He managed to start all 16 games last season, doing so for the first time since 2002. The offensive line will be a strength once again, so that will help keep McNair on the field, as will the presence of a dangerous running back such as McGahee. Nevertheless, this team's Super Bowl aspirations are dependent on McNair's health, with Kyle Boller as the only serviceable back-up. The Ravens have to be the favorite for this division and, talent-wise, they match up pretty well with the AFC's elite.

Cincinnati Bengals: After making the playoffs in 2005, the Bengals struggled, finishing 8-8. The offense was a strength once again, as Carson Palmer made a successful return from a severe knee injury. Palmer had a strong season, as did Rudi Johnson and the Bengals' wide receiving corps. The defense, on the other hand, struggled mightily and likely cost the team another playoff appearance. While in 2005, the defense was able to get away with gambling and made their living off turnovers, this proved less effective in 2006.

The biggest news the Bengals made was off the field, as numerous players were arrested for various implications. The Bengals had the dubious distinction of being the JailBlazers of the NFL and they had a lot to do with Commissioner Roger Goodell initiating his policy of suspending players for such behavior. Chris Henry was among the first victims.

Cincinnati did not do a great deal to improve the defense, so the pressure will lie on the offense to out-gun the opposition. The Bengals could be a playoff team again, but Carson Palmer will have to have an MVP-caliber season if they are to compete with Baltimore for the AFC North crown.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers were unable to follow up their Super Bowl season with another playoff run, as Ben Roethlisburger suffered numerous injuries and the team finished at .500. Big Ben seemingly could not catch a break. He was in a motorcycle accident in the off-season, then missed time due to an emergency appendectomy. While he played in all but the first game of the season, he missed training camp and the pre-season, which made it harder for him to get into a rhythm. He was also relied on more to make plays with the retirement of Jerome Bettis. As a result, he threw for 3,513 yards, over 1,000 more than in 2005, and a career-high 18 TDs, but was intercepted 23 times. The 23 interceptions was more than he threw in his first two seasons combined.

The Steelers got a strong effort from their defense, but lost Joey Porter to free agency in the off-season. While Porter is aging and his production was beginning to decline, he was very much the heart and soul of the defense, and for that reason he will be missed. Nonetheless, the Pittsburgh defense will still be a strength. The most significant loss, however, was that of long-time head coach Bill Cowher. Now Mike Tomlin will take the reins in his first head coaching job and will have a difficult task ahead in the highly competitive AFC North.

The key to the season will be Roethlisburger's improvement. Willie Parker performed admirably as the starting running back, but this is not the same Steelers team of Bettis' days, when they could grind it out on the ground and the quarterback had to do little more than keep the defense honest. Big Ben didn't appear ready last year for such a large role in the offense, but that may have been due to his off-season injuries.

Cleveland Browns: Last year, Cleveland's offense was dismal, scoring only 238 points for the entire season. Charlie Frye was relatively ineffective and Reuben Droughns also struggled in his first season out of Mike Shanahan's offense. Through the draft, the Browns (hopefully) substantially improved. They used the third overall pick on Joe Thomas, who will help stabilize the offensive line, then managed to trade up and take Brady Quinn with the 22nd pick. This was considered something of a coup simply because there were those who thought the Browns would take Quinn with the third pick and no one expected him to be available that late. That said, Quinn (and Thomas) will have to substantially improve the Browns for it to be a worthwhile trade, as they surrendered next year's first round pick to Dallas in order to take Quinn.

In addition to their draft day activity, the Browns added Jamal Lewis, who ought to fare better than Droughns. While they have a similar running style, Droughns is really little more than a glorified fullback, whereas Lewis has been among the best at his position when he has been healthy and properly motivated. The additions of Thomas, Quinn, and Lewis will give the Browns a considerably better offense (though Quinn might not start immediately).

While the defense will not be dominant, the offense's improvement should keep the defense off the field for longer stretches, allowing for more rest and a stronger performance. The Browns should be fairly improved all-around. That said, it may not be reflected much in their record due to their difficult schedule. In addition to divisional play, Cleveland will have to face New England and the NFC West. There are some cupcakes on the schedule (Arizona, Oakland, Houston), but even so it is hard to envision the Browns finishing with more than 6 wins, barring a superb rookie season from Quinn.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

NFL Preview: AFC East

I'll be posting NFL predictions by division, starting with the AFC East. Teams are listed in order of projected finish.

New England Patriots: After their defeat at the hands of the Colts in last year's playoffs, it was clear that Tom Brady was going to need some help if the Patriots wanted to regain their swagger. Enter Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth, and Wes Welker. These three receivers, along with the returning Reche Caldwell, give the Patriots what has to be considered the best WR corps in the NFL. Moss and Stallworth give Tom Brady deep threats like he's never had before, while Welker should be an excellent slot receiver, as well as return specialist. The offense should be extremely potent, though one potential problem is depth at running back. The retirement of Corey Dillon leaves Laurance Maroney as the primary running back, with only Kevin Faulk and rookie Justise Hairston to spell him. Maroney had a great rookie season, but that's still a lot to ask of a second-year player. Of course, this should be a very pass-heavy offense, so the real pressure lies on Brady.

On the defensive end, the primary addition was that of Adalius Thomas, who should give the Patriots a superb pass rush. The only question about Thomas is whether he was a product of the system in Baltimore and playing alongside Ray Lewis, or if he really is as good as he looked. His greatest asset is his versatility and Bill Belichick will have to use that to his full advantage. Had Thomas gone to just about any other team, there would be doubt as to whether Thomas would still be used to his full ability, but with Belichick it seems to be a foregone conclusion.

The main difference between this year's team and those of recent years is the potential chemistry issues. While the Patriots have always been very cohesive, one has to wonder whether Moss, Thomas, or even Asante Samuel will cause trouble. On paper, this is the best team in football, but a few losses could tear the locker room apart due to the intense pressure they're under. The Patriots are officially in George Steinbrenner mode. It's Super Bowl or bust.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins were extremely hyped up at this time last season, due to the addition of Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper turned out not to be healthy and Miami struggled to a 6-10 record. Also hurting them was the struggles of Ronnie Brown. The one thing they did do well was play defense, behind Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor. This year should be no different in that regard, with the addition of Joey Porter. While contract Porter received was a bit lucrative, he will improve Miami's already impressive defense.

To aid their struggling offense, the Dolphins cut Culpepper loose and traded for Trent Green. Green should be an upgrade, though it's unclear how much he can help. He is 37 and struggled last season, despite a strong offensive line and Larry Johnson to ease pressure on him. By the time the playoffs rolled around last season, it was clear that Herm Edwards had very little confidence in Green. The Colts stacked the line against Kansas City in order to neutralize Johnson, basically daring them to pass, and the Chiefs were unable to capitalize. With all this in mind, it is difficult to envision the Dolphins offense being especially potent. No major additions were made at running back, so Brown will be on his own again. First-round pick Ted Ginn Jr. should be a dangerous return man, but at best he'll offset the loss of Wes Welker.

Even with all that in mind, the Dolphins offense will be decent, if not explosive, and the defense should be top-notch. The outstanding defense and average offense should allow the Dolphins to finish as high as second in the division.

New York Jets: Eric Mangini's head coaching debut was a successful one, as the Jets finished 10-6 and made the playoffs. Chad Pennington surprised many by staying healthy and the Jets managed to find just enough of a rushing attack to be effective. The Jets defense also performed very well, but much of the credit for the team's performance went to Mangini.

While Mangini did a nice job, the team's success had more to do with one of the easiest schedules in football. The Jets had victories over Tennessee (pre-Vince Young), Buffalo, Miami, Detroit, Houston, and Oakland, with their only particularly impressive win coming in November against New England. The Jets will have a much tougher schedule this year, when they will face the likes of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Kansas City. Not to mention the usual two games against the much improved Patriots.

The addition of Thomas Jones will bolster the offense, but again much will depend on Chad Pennington's health and effectiveness. Even with Jones in the fold, Mangini will have his work cut out for him for the Jets to make the playoffs again. A 8-8 finish is more realistic.

Buffalo Bills: The Bills surprised some and managed a respectable 7-9 record last season. The defense was great, Willis McGahee was fairly productive while healthy, and Lee Evans had a very good season despite inconsistent quarterback play. It will be very hard for them to repeat that success this season.

The Bills lost two of their top defensive players, Nate Clements and London Fletcher, to free agency and traded away McGahee to the Ravens and Takeo Spikes to the Eagles. They received Darwin Walker in exchange for Spikes, but were unable to come to terms on a contract, forcing them to trade him away as well. The Bills are clearly in rebuilding mode, and they will hope to get some production from rookie Marshawn Lynch, taken with the 12th overall pick. Other notable draft picks included Paul Posluzny, who should help make up for the losses of Fletcher and Spikes, and their quarterback of the future, Trent Edwards.

If the Bills are to have any success, J.P. Losman will have to play better than he did last year, when he was unable to hold the starting job. With Kelly Holcomb gone, the job is Losman's to lose, as the team probably isn't too eager to insert Edwards into the starting spot just yet. With a reasonably difficult schedule and a very tough division, the Bills will have one of the worst records in the AFC.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Two Week Hiatus

This blog will probably not see any action for the next two weeks, as I will be out of the country. I might try to do one or two posts from abroad, but most likely my loyal readers will have to survive without me for a little while.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Culpepper Gets Another Chance

Daunte Culpepper has had his share of bad luck over the last few years. Randy Moss left him in Minnesota, where he struggled mightily before suffering a season-ending injury, then he came back too early from knee surgery last year in Miami and struggled before he was replaced by Joey Harrington. He didn't get another chance with the Dolphins as they traded for Trent Green and he nearly didn't control his own fate when the Dolphins held off on releasing him, in the hope that they could force a trade.

Culpepper has found a new home in Oakland, where he'll get the chance to start; an opportunity which seemed extremely unlikely not long ago. Oakland is the best situation Culpepper could have hoped for. He'll have the chance to start, which would have been much harder to come by anywhere else, and mentor JaMarcus Russell. If he succeeds as the starting quarterback, he may well get the chance to start for the entire season (if the Raiders are remotely competitive). The Raiders might take an approach similar to the one Cincinnati took with Carson Palmer or San Diego with Phiip Rivers. That worked out pretty well for the Bengals and the Chargers. Culpepper will most likely be out after one season anyway, so this season will effectively be an audition for him for the rest of the league. If he can prove that he is still the same Daunte Culpepper who lit up defenses in Minnesota, he'll get some calls at the end of the year. (Jacksonville may already have him on speed-dial, just in case.)

It's a great move for the Raiders as well, who now don't have to throw their rookie into the fire behind a poor offensive line and turn him into a tackling dummy. (See: Carr, David) Culpepper, well aware of his role, should make a good mentor for the Russell. What will be very interesting to watch is how long Culpepper lasts. Supposedly he is back to full health now, but with the Raiders' offensive line, that may not last long.

This season could determine Culpepper's NFL legacy. Is he a big guy with a strong arm who was lucky enough to play with a Hall of Fame wide receiver, or is he a superstar who suffered some bad luck? We may not find that out this year, but his performance (and health) could determine whether he gets a chance next year.